Part One: Chapter 11
The Haxûdī had awoken to a morning of muck and misery. The evening’s rain had converted the path’s loosely packed, leaf-strewn dirt into sucking mud, and their baggage carts were as bogged now in the road as their heads were in throbbing pains. One has little to do when the sky weeps so profusely save to hunker down with a woman or wineskin or both; and though only the memory of women—good or bad—had been there to distract the GrimHelm and his men when the torrent arrived, the wineskins had started full near to bursting. Now they were all but empty…left wanting…
Like my soul, mused Dragan as he dismounted to help Jedan Mûran’s boy dig out a wheel. Gavix’ effort had only worsened the predicament. “Go fetch me a plank.” Dragan’s look and tone were stern, befitting the mood of the day.
The lad ran off aimlessly, clearly more anxious to avoid chastisement than to fulfill the command.
Not bothering to wait, Dragan trudged into the muck and made ready to put his back into it, when…
“Allow me,” said someone coming up from behind. The voice was thin and strangely dry.
Dragan turned in surprise.
“You’ve kept me waiting long enough,” continued Poltoros, moving in as his mistress’ son stepped aside. The eerie messenger appeared the same as when Dragan had last met with him before the gates of Crûthior—and without another word, he stepped forward and shoved the end of his tyberwood staff between the spokes, uttered an arcane phrase, and lifted gently. The wheel rose, slowly but without effort, and the mud below gasped as it collapsed back upon itself, losing its prize.
This wasn’t the first such conjuration Dragan had witnessed—not even the first from this man—yet a wave of awe swept over him all the same. An image of the White King’s myrmidons flashed across his mind. He heard again clearly, as if returned to the very moment, their bloodcurdling cries as wildfire streamed forth from Poltoros’ staff to engulf their bodies: reducing them in mere seconds to ash and bones. He recalled how the servant beside him now, seemingly alive and whole today, had collapsed on that dark evening from the drain of sorcery and been ripped near to shreds by wicked claws and fangs…and how after his own tremendous feat, he’d wrapped the mutilated body for the journey home. Poltoros’ face had looked different before he fell: tanned, full, and at least capable of subtle jest if not true mirth. Now it was as sallow and gaunt and detached as a talking corpse: for that was just what Poltoros had become. He saved my life…but how he must despise me for the cost!
“Your mother praises you highly,” rasped the lich, withdrawing his staff from the wheel and turning to Dragan. “But I’m not impressed.”
Dragan assumed Poltoros would elaborate, but instead the man merely stood and stared at him with cold, black eyes. It appeared he expected something from his onetime ward. But not knowing what that something was, the DoomBringer offered only: “How far ahead did you ride?” and, receiving no response to that, “Did you see the warnings?”
Poltoros cut his eyes over Dragan’s right shoulder. A man was approaching on horseback. “Send him away.”
“My lord,” began Ûladriss, ignoring the stranger’s dismissal. “If I may have a word…” He gestured to a more private spot just off the road. “It’s urgent.”
“In a moment,” spoke his captain. “Wait there.”
Ûladriss frowned, nodded, and yanked the reins, swinging his steed around.
Dragan watched the Haxûdī chieftain trot off before turning back to Poltoros with a frown of his own. “I’ll dismiss my men as I choose, servant.”
“He comes to report the death of a scout,” said the lich, unmoved by Dragan’s provocation. “The man’s body lies in the road, not far ahead—his eyes gouged out and the lids sewn shut with twists of his own hair.”
Dragan glanced to where Ûladriss awaited him and met the Haxûdī’s eyes. Yes, that’s it.
Poltoros was grinning now as if the scout’s torture and murder amused him. “Two more there are, further on. Their conditions are similar.”
“I jested with my marshal yesterday,” said Dragan, indicating Ûladriss with a slight nod in that direction. “He saw to the necessary precautions, but we both laughed at the thought of an attack. What makes the wretched clans of Braured so bold? Has some leader united them? Or has lust for my spoils stricken every one of them dumb?” Not expecting an answer, he shook his head and went on. “They’ll rue it. Each man with me has slain more foes than these swine herders have ever seen. Fools! Do they think we’ll scare and flee…and leave our hard-won plunder behind?”
“No. They aim to kill you all. Did I see the warnings? Son of Saedus, I bring the only warning you need concern yourself with, and it’s one straight from your mother’s lips. Quicken your pace—or forfeit your own precious gift. Must I say more?” The lich reached into his cloak, extracted something, and handed it over.
The Sun of Domal. Dragan studied the three golden rays and cursed the day of his birth. Then Gavix returned, daring to give his lord, the stranger, and the freed cart questioning looks. The DoomBringer’s fist tightened on the pendant as his anger welled. Damn her! he thought, turning his icy gaze on the attendant. “Where’s that plank, boy? Tell me you’ve not returned empty-handed…”
“I…I…the men wouldn’t listen,” the lad stuttered and lied—his eyes in love with the ground—unable to withstand his master’s stare.
“Go to your father and tell him you’ve failed me—and that your service is no longer required. Use those exact words and no others!”
Absolute terror seized the boy. He scrambled forward, fell on his hands and knees and groveled before his master, clasping the man’s leg tight as if he never intended to let go. The pleading that ensued roused no sympathy from Dragan. With some exertion, he managed to kick Gavix from his boot. The boy landed face down in the mud then drew himself up slowly and limped away. He turned his head around to meet his lord’s face.
Dragan marked the look as one of hate.
Realizing his anger had bested him only inflamed it more. He turned back to Poltoros, but the lich spoke first:
“I remember when you were but a child yourself, before foolish men called you by silly names. I read to you often—the Book of Kings being your favorite. You were most particularly fond of Nal’tanos Crimlore, the Golden King, a man methodical, astute, and wise in his resistance to impulse and anger. He placed a gold clasp shaped as a scale on his sheath, so that before he could draw his blade he must contemplate justice.” A pause. “Yet it doesn’t look to me that his color suits you now, GrimHelm." Special emphasis was placed on his last word.
Only those few who knew Dragan’s past could so easily diminish his glory and toy with his emotions. This he hated above all. His anger faded to a dull rancor, then he spoke—less hotly now but with more spite:
“Be gone from my sight, pigeon. And don’t return…unless you too wish to be flung face down in the mud.”
“An empty threat,” replied the messenger dryly. “Nevertheless, I hasten to be away. I’ve sent for…” The lich stopped short, reflecting. Then—with a sly smile—he spun and was on his way. Dragan watched him go before motioning to Ûladriss. The marshal trotted up:
“A friend of yours?”
Friend, or foe? A brief conversation ensued between Dragan and Ûladriss, yet the former would be unable to recall much of it later. His inner thoughts had drifted once again, touched off by his visitor…
The solitary torch shed enough light to reveal the two intruders’ faces, but it couldn’t uncloak the convulsing figure that lay at their feet. Dragan had crushed the young man’s skull against the wet tunnel wall; and now he and his mother’s steward stood over the body, waiting for the unfortunate youth’s death: hoping it would come quickly. Every moan and twitch tormented them. Shame visited the killer, and pity tugged at the witness. Poltoros’ blue eyes, brilliant as gems, glared harshly at the Bastard of Domal through the torchlight; yet though it took all his power, Dragan didn’t shy away from the gaze. After a pause following the victim’s final mewl, Poltoros released a quivering whisper as if he’d been holding his breath:
“What’ve you done? You’ve murdered this harmless man…”
Dragan’s anger rose quickly, as if he’d anticipated such a chiding. “We’re here to murder! Or have you forgotten?”
“Not the innocent!”
“What does that mean, steward? Didn’t you hear Mother? Everyone in this realm is only an extension of him. They do his will. They’re slaves to his power. Look…how many will we have to kill beyond there?” Dragan pointed ahead to where the tunnel necked down into another: one fit only for crawling. “Will they not have sons and daughters who’ll mourn them once they’re dead? Dead by our hands?”
Poltoros made no reply but dropped his torch to the ground, revealing the unhappy victim. A mass of black blood pooled around the poor youth’s lifeless face. He’d died with his eyes open and mouth agape. A gruesome spectacle to behold.
“We had no choice!” Dragan pleaded, cooled by the sight of his work. “As soon as we were on our bellies he would’ve been off, fast as his legs could carry him, to tell someone. Anyone! It would’ve been our undoing!”
“For what price will our names be scribed in the Book of Kings?” the sorcerer mused, shaking his head as he stared intensely at the body below. “A price too great for me. The sight of blood has opened my eyes, child. We’ve no business here, so many miles from home. Let’s leave the White King to his devices—and better yet, your mother also. Her mind’s become twisted. I’ll deny it no more. All who wish to be as gods will come to woe.”
The portent didn’t escape Dragan—and suddenly he became aware of the burden his new breastplate imposed on his body.
“I’ve been for you my entire life, old man,” he started again. “Mother calls you servant, but I’d as soon call you father. You taught me so many things—but never spoke to me of men whose lives passed them by in mediocrity. Never of those who were birthed and died yet did nothing in between but toil in some field or beg on some corner. How many were there? What were their names? Had it been that they never lived, what difference would it have made? No, my friend, I won’t fade into oblivion. The song of Dragan Saedus shall be sung long after I’m gone. This is my time. I’m sorry.”
Poltoros scowled. “And your mother?”
Dragan hesitated then pulled a small glass vial from his sleeve. The sorcerer peered at it through the torch’s orange glow before shifting his eyes to its keeper. “Now you have my motive,” Dragan answered, “…beyond fulfilling Mother’s wishes. I’ve never cared to understand her grand plots and designs—but you know our mission here, and that should be enough for us both. This glass is to hold the White King’s blood.”
Heedless of their peril, Poltoros released a booming laugh that reverberated down the tunnel. “And you should beware, boy, of that curse etched about your neck.” And with that he spun around and returned from whence they’d come. Dragan watched the torchlight wane until it was no more. There in the blackness he fought the urge to follow, but eventually he prostrated himself and snaked into the tiny burrow: entrance to the keep of Tiramas Vendhane, the White King and Lord of Addrindain.